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Ayers v. Belmontes

Docket No.: 05-493
Certiorari Granted: May 1 2006
Argued: October 3, 2006
Decided: November 13, 2006

Topics:

Amendment 8: Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Eighth Amendment, Death Penalty, habeas, murder

PartyNames: Robert L. Ayers, Jr., Acting Warden v. Fernando Belmontes
Petitioner: Robert L. Ayers, Jr., Acting Warden
Respondent: Fernando Belmontes

Court Below: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Robert L. Ayers, Jr., Acting Warden
v.
Fernando Belmontes
549 U.S. 7 (2006)
Background:

In Boyde v. California, 494 U.S. 370 (1990), this Court upheld the constitutionality of California's "catch-all" mitigation instruction in capital cases, the so-called "unadorned factor (k)," which directs juries to consider "any other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime." This Court found jurors would reasonably understand this instruction to encompass mitigating factors unrelated to the crime itself, such as the defendant's background and character. In this case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the use of this same instruction violated the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution because it likely misled the jurors to believe they were forbidden from considering background and character evidence relating to "forward-looking" considerations about the defendant's future prospects if sentenced to life in prison.

Question Presented:

I. Does Boyde confirm the constitutional sufficiency of California's "unadorned factor (k)" instruction where a defendant presents mitigating evidence of his background and character which relates to, or has a bearing on, his future prospects as a life prisoner? 2. Does the Ninth Circuit's holding, that California's "unadorned factor (k)" instruction is constitutionally inadequate to inform jurors they may consider "forward-looking" mitigation evidence, constitute a "new rule" under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989)?

Question:

1) Is an "unadorned" factor (k) instruction sufficient to inform a jury that it must consider any mitigating evidence that a defendant may present concerning his probability of rehabilitation and good behavior as a prisoner? 2) Is the Ninth Circuit's ruling that factor (k) is constitutionally inadequate a "new constitutional rule of criminal procedure," in which case it would not be applied retroactively to other defendants whose cases are already final?

Holding: judgment reversed and remanded
Decision: Decision: 5 votes for Ayers, 4 vote(s) against
Opinion By:
Read AYERS V. BELMONTES opinion (PDF)

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